There is a renewed twist in an old doctrine these days. We remember hearing about when fundamentalists fought the liberals over the existence of hell. Many of them have found the truth by now. We have lived with the notion that hell is not literal, enduring the hermeneutical gymnastics of left wing evangelicals who believed that the fire of hell would be no more literal than the tongue which is a fire. Now it seems we are going to spar with the view that hell is real and hot but not eternal. That is, the fire itself may be literal and eternal but the lost souls which are cast therein are annihilated.
U.S. News and World Report, March 25, 1991, featured this controversy among evangelicals and liberals and included some surprising names representing the annihilation viewpoint. I wasn’t surprised to read the Rev. Mary Kraus of the Dumbarton United Methodist Church in Washington, D.C. say that her parishioners are ‘‘upper-middle-class, well-educated critical thinkers’’ who view God as ‘‘compassionate and loving, not someone who’s going to push them into eternal damnation.’’ But I was surprised to read Clark Pinnock (quoted in the Criswell Theological Review) asking, ‘‘How can Christians possibly project a deity of such cruelty and vindictiveness as to inflict everlasting torture upon his creatures, however sinful they may have been? A God who would do such a thing is more nearly like Satan than like God.’’ I was equally disappointed to read John Stott contending that the fire of hell may be eternal and unquenchable but that ‘‘it would be very odd if what is thrown into it proves indestructible.’’ And Philip Hughes argued that the traditional belief in an unending punishment is linked to the erroneous belief in the ‘‘innate immortality of the soul–a belief that is based more on Plato than on the Bible.’’
I don’t mean to make this doctrine seem new. From the days of Origen (A.D. 185-254) the liberal thinker has sought an expositional way out of an eternal hell. In 1932, B.B. Warfield (Studies in Theology) divided this doctrine into three views: Pure mortalism, that no soul lives without a body; conditional immortality, that only saved souls live forever after the body dies; and annihilationism proper, that sin brings actual punishment on a lost soul but not eternally. Today’s thinking on this subject is actually rethinking but sometimes rethinking has a way, at least to some, of refining the doctrine into a more acceptable form.
Today, we can make a two-fold division of the view. First, there is annihilationism. Some are saying again that hell may be real and hot but the souls that are cast into it will be immediately destroyed and will be, as the Jehovah Witness doctrine says, ‘‘as if they had never existed before.’’ An interesting book by Mark Graeser and others titled Is There Death After Life? reopens this old discussion and even tries to enlist Luther and other Reformers into this camp. They also present the view that lost souls cease consciousness at death and saved souls sleep without consciousness until resurrection.
Second, there is universalism (restorationism, conditionalism). These are the theories that say some or all lost souls will have a second chance to be saved after death. Clark Pinnock and John Sanders, speaking at the joint session of the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature (which was opened by Mary Daly of Boston College, a self-proclaimed witch), presented what they called ‘‘Wider Hope Theology,’’ the view that there may be hope even for the lost who have already died. While reading Bruce Lockerbie’s delightful book The Cosmic Center, I was surprised to read that he was not sure all the heathen who have never heard of Jesus Christ would go to hell and admitted that, ‘‘some, while reading this broader view of redemption, will take offense (p. 179).’’ Whichever temporal view of hell one takes, it still takes the sting out of punishment for sin. As Harold Brown of Trinity Divinity School said, ‘‘to tell the unrepentant that the worst fate that could befall them is extinction, makes continuing in sin less risky.’’
We have to agree with Millard Erickson when he says, ‘‘the problem with all of the forms of annihilationism is that they contradict the teaching of the Bible.’’ The issue, of course, for those of us who accept scripture as final authority, hinges largely on the Greek word aionios, usually translated ‘‘eternal’’ or ‘‘everlasting.’’ The word is used some seventy times in the New Testament, the great majority of which modify ‘‘life’’ and give us the concept of ‘‘eternal life.’’ In connection with hell we have, ‘‘eternal damnation’’ (Mk 3:29), ‘‘eternal fire’’ (Matt 25:41, 46), ‘‘eternal destruction’’ (2 Thes. 1:9), ‘‘eternal judgment’’ (Heb 6:2) and ‘‘eternal fire’’ (Jude 7). What does this adjective tell us about each noun? I believe it tells us the same thing about those nouns as about the following: ‘‘everlasting God’’ (Rom 16:26), Jesus Christ was ‘‘before time eternal’’ (2 Tim 1:9), eternal Spirit’’ (Heb 9:14), ‘‘eternal covenant’’ (Heb 13:20), ‘‘everlasting kingdom’’ (2 Pet 1:11) and ‘‘everlasting gospel’’ (Rev 14:6). Perhaps if hell is not ‘‘eternal,’’ neither is God ‘‘eternal.’’ And what about eternity for the faithful? Surely we can’t criticize Paul for using the word aionios both ways in the same book: ‘‘everlasting destruction’’ (2 Thes 1:9) for the lost and ‘‘everlasting consolation’’ (2:16) for the saved. One is as long as the other! Unger quotes Van Oosterzee as asking, ‘‘There is no doubt that Holy Scripture requires us to believe in a properly so-called place of punishment. . . who shall say that the reality will not infinitely surpass in awfulness the boldest pictures of it?’’
Humanly speaking, I could wish that hell were not eternal and that living souls did not spend eternity there. Anyone who has buried a lost friend or loved one wishes so. But we have no choice in the matter. An infinitely wise God has designed eternity and has spoken plainly. My problem is a worse one than speculation. It is summed up in a statement Martin Marty once made, ‘‘If people really believed in hell, they wouldn’t be watching basketball or even TV preachers, they’d be out rescuing people!’’ Selah!